The time when I met Rebecca and Stephanie together (a Deaf academics story)

November 10, 2018 – 11:43 pm

I want to write about something that happened a while back and had a tremendous impact on me that’s still quietly unfolding into realization. I knew it had been big at the time, and I could articulate some aspects of it then… but had a sense that there would be a ripening of that articulation into something — not perfect or final — but something worth waiting for.

Which is, perhaps, why I’ve been so quiet for these past 3.5, almost 4 years. So many people have asked me to write about… well, they usually ask specifically about my CI surgery, which is telling (there’s a lot to that story, but it’s by far the smallest of the seismic shifts in my identity and practice that have taken place in the past half-decade). Or maybe they ask what it’s been like to learn ASL, or some other really small specific aspect of the whole I still can’t point to, but — I think — have now learned how to live out, in a way that works for me. And I have to, I think, learn how to live a story — or live as someone who can make sense of that story — before I can tell it.

Anyway. This is the telling of a story, and the remembering of a trip, and it’s going to be long and poorly edited, and that’s fine because I can write and tell it better later, someday. This is also a tremendous thank-you to Rebecca Sanchez and Stephanie Kerschbaum.

In February 2016, Rebecca gave a seminar on her newly-released book, Deafening Modernism (which remains one of my models of Books To Which I Aspire To Live Up To Someday). Stephanie was to give a (formal) response afterward, thus opening a discussion. The seminar was in NYC; I was in the first year of my two years back in Boston. I was a new, barely conversational signer, and still reeling from my CI activation a few months prior.

I was also still quite new to the notion that Deaf academics existed. And, therefore, still new to the notion that I might be one of them as well. But I didn’t know how to do that, or what that meant.

(As an aside: does that idea seem strange, that you might be something — or possibly something — as long as you can remember, and not know how to be that kind of person, or what it could possibly mean? To many people, it might. But to those who’ve had a coming-out in one way or another, perhaps some of this journey might feel… if not familiar, perhaps as if it rhymes with something that is.)

In any case, at that point, I’d met — I think… four? Deaf academics, ever… Patti, then Maren, then Stephanie during an impetuous 6-hour road trip because I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to meet someone like me in all these ways, and would have driven to the ends of the earth to see it — and Rebecca briefly during a stopover in NYC, where we had chicken wings and I skipped half of a (very expensive) Broadway show because I didn’t want our conversation to ever end. I think I hadn’t yet met Teresa, who I finally caught at an airport when I was flying out (to Poland) and she was flying in (from… I forget) and — again, the moving of heaven and earth and flight logistics to get even a few precious minutes in with someone who is finally — finally! — like you in ways you have a million questions about, so many gaping holes in a future for yourself you can’t see yet, don’t know how to navigate, are still trying to imagine if it’s even possible at all.

This was the sum total of my exposure to Deaf people (Deaf women! Even some Deaf women of color!) in academia. So few. So brief. So far away, and yet a fellowship I was so ravenous for that I was essentially on pilgrimage searching for it.

I had never seen two Deaf academics together. I had never seen two other Deaf scholars in conversation. I had… it sounds like a weird variation of the Bechdel-Wallace test, right? Two Deaf people, signing to each other, about something other than ASL (or Deafness or ablism or something like that) — I cannot express enough that I had absolutely, utterly, zero concept of what this might even be like.

And so every moment – every detail – every bit of “oh, this is how each of us chooses — differently! — to navigate the everydays of life” — was something I watched, and drank in, and went: oh. Oh. Is this what it’s like, to see someone you might grow up to become?

Is this how it is, when you’ve been staring at a blank canvas for years and years trying to figure out how anything could possibly appear on it, and suddenly a splotch of color clears and blossoms in a few small inches on the vast white sheet – not the full painting, but the thing that tells you that it’s possible for something to exist here at all, at all, at all?

The feeling of seeing a complex intellectual joke and laughing immediately, and with full comprehension, of why it was funny – and not automatically laughing because everybody else is laughing and you’re using it as cover while your brain tries frantically to make sense of what, from the partial information you have gotten, might possibly be so hilarious. The feeling of spontaneously replying with another joke — in your fourth and newest language — and being stunned that you… can even do that at all, because you… you don’t sign expressively. You don’t. Why would you, when everyone around you is just always hearing, and you speak clearly enough?

The feeling of being with people, in the academic world you’re trying so hard to join. The feeling of having the life of the mind become… communal — with a clarity and ease you’ve never had before.

We signed with each other on the train — about research! — and it was my first time lobbing out my nascent thoughts on poststructural theory and engineering education in ASL, and having people understand me, and engage and draw my thoughts into their far more eloquent web — we signed to each other walking through the city… is this what academic conversations look like in this language, when it’s direct and not in translation? Is this what it’s like to experience this sort of intellectual banter directly, in a way that’s not exhausting and full of holes? It was all so new to me, the notion that I might… discuss… research with other people, and understand it fully, straight from the source language, and be understood, and not have to strain to drop my consonants into all the right places in my throat.

Let me repeat that for the hearing academics in the house. Imagine that you are a PhD candidate, and never once have you had a direct, in-person conversation with someone about your research, or about theirs, without a heavy muffle and a thick fog of radio static blanketed over the entire dialogue, exhausting you. Imagine what it might be like to have that for the first time; how strange, how awkward, how full of information, how overwhelming, and how wonderful (and simultaneously scary!) that might feel.

We went to lunch in the cafeteria, and I hesitated by the door — it was loud, it was noisy, I had to rip my CI off because I couldn’t yet handle the background din. I didn’t know what the cashier would say, and I didn’t think I could fake it this time — but I didn’t know how to do this any other way than to pretend, really really hard, to be a hearing person. So I hung back and let Rebecca and Stephanie go first, because… how does one pay for lunch at a cafeteria any other way than “try to pretend to be hearing”?

And one of them signed and gestured and pointed and held out their card and paid; and one of them spoke and told the cashier how to communicate in ways they could understand, and I forget what I did, because I was still processing the first time I had ever seen the phrase “Deaf people have a wide variety of approaches to communication” actually lived out on a college campus — I mean, I knew that! But I’d never seen it, and my brain was still going oh, oh, OH, that’s REAL and it’s OKAY and… and… I have options!

And I remember walking through the campus signing, asking questions, marveling at how I was still able to engage and participate and understand – and walking into the seminar room and watching all three of us codeswitch to “hearing mode” the moment we walked through the door. (Which was a lesson in and of itself, and which we talked about afterward as a choice we all automatically made but were not completely comfortable with.)

And yet.

Hands went down, but eyes did not. Voices turned on, and at the same time – there was a constant flicker of backchannel, of mutual monitoring, and… this strange but oddly comforting feeling that other people saw what you could see, was keeping pulse on the same things (interpreters! seating! body language! eye gaze!) you were tracking, that you were all doing this dance of survival that nobody else could see, and that each of us usually did alone. And for the first time, I felt like… the responsibility of holding all that up, of keeping track, of constant vigilance – was not entirely on me. That if I slipped (because I did dance awkwardly, as newer dancers are wont to do) it would still be okay, because someone else was holding the beat up, no matter what I did.

And folks… I understood their conversation, and I learned from it. Which was – again – remarkable to me, because I went my entire academic career showing up at discussions/classes/etc. because I had to, or because I had to perform and demonstrate that I knew things — I didn’t really go to learn things, I would have to had learned them before arriving to have any shot at following even parts of the lecture or conversation at all.

I’m looking through some of my old notes now tonight and I found the copy of Rebecca’s talk, which I had annotated (this is what prompted this whole blog post to begin with) — and it’s scrawled thick with margin notes and underlines and references to our conversation. Turns out that it’s so much easier to read and connect and practice thinking like a slightly more mature scholar… when you get to actually have conversations with those more mature scholars, and eavesdrop on their discourse, and use it as a model for your own.

That stapled sheaf of paper was immediately on top of one of my written reflections for a grad school class less than a year prior, where I can now see how immature my writing/thinking is in comparison. I can now start to see — oh, this is what my professor was trying to tell me. These were the gaps they were pointing out; these were the things I didn’t know I wasn’t doing, but couldn’t understand their cues for at the time — the marks of the art of scholarly discourse. The moves I hadn’t yet seen in action, live, away from the ink outlines pressed into a book attempting to describe something so much more dynamic and full. The dialogue practice I hadn’t actually gotten to try.

It’s hard to read your way into being conversational in a language, but that’s how I’ve done it in every other language that I know. It’s much easier to converse your way into being conversational in a language. And (after a year in Rochester, after seeing more and having more of these scholarly conversations and everyday academic interactions in ASL), I can now start to see them in my writing, in the writing of others, in the moves and subtleties and richness that gets layered into excellent thinking and writing.

I have always been a strong reader, but I did not have much access to the internal worlds of people in the process of writing, or windows into those (eventually beautiful and polished) thoughts as they were being formed. I’d walked through museums looking at the best pottery made through all of history, behind a glass wall, on a shelf — and then been trying to make pots without seeing or talking with other people about how they used a studio. It has been so, so strange to walk into a studio that’s full of people. And it is still so strange, this notion that I can watch and interact with other people while they’re at work. The work I want to learn to do.

Anyway.

I remember that visit. I remember driving home wondering how I would ever explain to any of my hearing friends why it was so important, why I was so happy to have seen how people pay for food at a cafeteria, why… why I would drive over 8 hours on a single day just to spend a few hours with people I barely knew, talking about a topic entirely out of my field, in a language I had scarcely learned.

I remembered it again when I saw students this semester walk into my classroom, or my office, and see my signing, or my interpreting team, or my CI, and blink, and sometimes hesitantly sign to me: you’re Deaf? You’re the professor? and sometimes watch me intently until I introduce myself as – yes, I’m Mel, I’m your professor, and I’m Deaf – and… I’m not going to say it’s always a look of happiness, or at least not purely so. Sometimes it’s puzzlement. Maybe sometimes it’s nothing. Probably a whole host of things I can’t read at all; I’m no telepath — it’s their internal world.

But I think, that for at least some of them, there’s the flicker of a world rearranging itself behind their eyes.

We need elders in our tribe. We need people to span a broad, broad space of many, many possible options, so that we have as wide a plain as possible to imagine ourselves exploring. That trip – those few hours – showed me what it looked like for Rebecca and Stephanie to be Deaf academics, and it made it much more possible for me to think in different ways about what it might mean for me, and I take absolutely none of this for granted; none at all.

And I think that’s all I have to say on that tonight.

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